A new book, conceived by Amherst- based illustrator Rebecca Guay, tackles stories of angels in a way that mixes Bible stories with “The Canterbury Tales” by way of some of the hottest writers in their field.
Guay’s book “A Flight of Angels,” from Vertigo, features collaborations with Holly Black, Bill Willingham, Alisa Kwitney, Louise Hawes and Todd Mitchell.
She will appear at a book signing with Black at the R. Michelson Gallery 132 Main St., Northampton, on Saturday, Nov. 19, at 6 p.m., which will also serve to launch a gallery show of Guay’s pages from the book.
Guay is best known for her work on “Magic: The Gathering” and “World of Warcraft,” as well as a number of children’s books. She had just finished a book for Houghton Mifflin when she found herself at a creative crossroads.
“I was asking, ‘What do I really want to do now?’” she said. “I was in that creative brainstorm place of ‘What’s the best thing I could do? What do I really want to sink my teeth into at this point?’” One idea she had was a book on angels that encompassed some of her most long-standing interests.
“I love winged creatures, I love mythology,” Guay said. “I was really into Greek mythology, and Cupid and Psyche, when I was a kid and that launched my interest in winged beings,” She had also found a following in fantasy art depicting angels, which furthered her intent to pursue them in a book. A dinner with author Jane Yolen and her daughter Heidi Stemple gave her the opportunity to expand on her ideas for the project.
“I was talking about the angel book,” said Guay, “and how I really wanted to do a collection of angel stories that explore atypical ideas of angels — falling in love, falling from grace, falling from heaven — these particular arc of themes that were perhaps tied together by a framed story,” Yolen and Stemple suggested that Guay ask a number of authors at the top of their game to help her with the project, and reminded her of her neighbor, Holly Black. Black has found much success in the field of YA books, with supernatural and mythological scenarios.
“I had coffee with Holly and I told her about the idea about the arc of angel stories that I really wanted to explore,” said Guay. “She was a little worried that we would offend the angel community because it might be toying with something that they hold very dear.”
“I said that it won’t be disrespectful, it will just be something that takes it in another place and we’ll end up seeing them a little bit differently.”
Black’s mind then got to work and provided the pivotal detail for the book’s plot, a nugget from Scandinavian folklore.
“She said ‘Did you know that fairies come from fallen angels?’ and I thought, ‘Well, that sounds like a really good direction to go in,’ ” Guay said. “From early on, it began to be a collaboration. I had conceived the arc of angel stories and had the drive and passion to seek out writers who I loved dearly and I wanted to work with.”
Once Guay firmed up her stable of collaborators, they all began working with them to shape the stories that resulted. “It’s one of the things that I do like about the format of words and pictures, that it allows a deep creative process with collaboration in a way that I think other areas of illustration don’t,” she said.
The writers added elements that Guay had never considered — Guay, in turn, began embellishing their ideas in the visuals. At that point, she had been approaching the work as single-page illustration, but after several manifestations of that format, began to think that the illustration needed more and she pulled from her past to bring it all together.
“I realized that it wouldn’t work as well if it were singlepage art,” Guay said. “It needed to be a graphic novel. We broke down the stories and retold them as sequential art. I started as a sequential artist so I was comfortable shifting to that place.”
The structure of the book also gave the Guay a chance to switch styles and shine in each of them. The stories run thegamut from Biblical to historical romance to traditional folklore and more than that, and Guay portrays each genre differently.
“It was always part of the intent to shift stylistically within my look to shift tone to look like the personality of each story specifically,” said Guay. “The narrative style is meant to switch with the illustration style and further the experience of the reader.”
Guay’s book represents a intellectual move forward in a recent genre that has seen traditional Christian concepts treated on equal level as more typical Pagan folklore involving fairies and elves. There is a fantasy element in angels specifically that begs a return to the idea of Bible stories as myths — something abandoned in modern fundamentalism — on equal footing with other fables and stories.
“I think that happened as a natural progression of the topic, the theme,” Guay said. “People spin a little bit toward that area of mythology. What I like very much about it is we use the two together in a way that I don’t often see.”
The result is a book that examines the way stories are told, with a Rashoman-like approach to explaining the tales behind angels and, therefore, the multitude of spiritual myths and legends that swirl in our cultural heritage.
For Guay, though, the appeal with angels is less intellectual or even religious, but more emotional.
“My interest in them comes from a grand place that taps into something inside,” she said. “There’s a deep grandeur and the emotions that are caught up in that grandeur can create angelic and god-like beings in your art that lift your spirit and that instill a feeling that I respond to when I draw and paint these kinds of images.”
Guay sees emotion as the center of artistic pursuit, so it only stands to reason that angels would be that for her.
“I think any great artist who I have loved over the years, what makes them great is that they can convey an emotional content within the quality of their work,” she said. “They can draw in the viewer and make their heart hurt or soar or have a deep emotional connection. It’s what defines the people who stand the test of time as artists.” “If you can’t do that as an artist, you won’t have a following, you won’t have fans, you won’t stand the test of time without that emotional connection, so whether it’s angels or fairies or dark things or urban gothic, whatever area you’re passionate about.”